George Lucas Educational Foundation

Northern Lights: These Schools Literally Leave No Child Behind

In remote Alaska, an innovative district ditches grade levels -- and increases learning.
Grace Rubenstein
Former senior producer at Edutopia
Related Tags: Assessment
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Girl from Alaska's Chugach School District holding up a fish

What does it really mean to leave no child behind? The educators of Alaska's Chugach School District believe they have the answer.

There are no grade levels in the rural district, which is based in Anchorage and serves tiny villages scattered throughout 22,000 square miles of remote areas of south central Alaska. Instead, each of its few hundred students tote around report cards as thick as history texts. Each packet details the individual student's progress through the district's more than 1,000 learning standards as they move from kindergarten to high school graduation.

Ask any secondary school student, and he or she can tell you, for example, "I'm at level five in math, level seven in reading, level six in career development." Students mark up the packets to track how far they've come, turning each page into a hodgepodge of multicolored highlights and scribbles. Take a snapshot of all the students' report cards at any point,and each one will look different.

At the core of the Chugach model is this rule: To move to the next level, you must master the one that precedes it. There is no sitting in the back row and skating by. Every child must learn every subject at every level, passing with proficiency equivalent to at least 80 percent -- essentially, a B minus. And when they're done, they're done, whether that means they finish when they're sixteen or twenty-one.

"Time was the constant and learning was the variable -- that's the old model," says Roger Sampson, president of the Education Commission of the States, who led Chugach's transformation as district superintendent in the 1990s. "We switched. What's constant is learning. Time is the variable."

And Sampson says that switch, revolutionary as it may seem, can and should be made in every district, large or small, in Alaska and beyond.

Uncommon Sense

Even as globalization and media propel our culture -- and our classrooms -- toward modes of production that are bigger, faster, and more alike, Chugach has refocused on an approach to education that is smaller, personalized, and variably paced. As Douglas Penn, the districtwide principal, explains, "Our kids graduate when they're ready. We're not pumping them out the door with D's on their diplomas."

This individualized pacing doesn't mean Chugach coddles its students. In fact, it places a great deal of responsibility on them. Teachers expect pupils to direct their own learning -- with guidance, of course -- and complete some of the district standards through projects they create and conduct. The older the kids get, the more leadership they must assume. An example of this ethos is the work of Jordan Geffe, who last spring wrote an essay on the healthiness of city life versus village life. He chose the assignment, topic, and argument (his thesis: Village life is healthier), and compiled evidence to back it up. In explaining the essay, Jordan opened his report card and pointed to exactly what he hoped to achieve: "Write a proficient composition that gives reasons."

At times, the demands can be "pretty upsetting," says Teresa Totemoff, a recent graduate of Tatitlek Community School, who recalls slacking off for a while and then realizing she had much work to do to graduate. "I remember crying, 'I don't want to do it no more!' But it was my own progress. I was proud of all I got done."

The Chugach schools arrived at their approach by way of disaster. In the early 1990s, the district had reached a crisis; its students could barely read, and graduates routinely failed to hold jobs or become productive members of their communities. The district had produced only a few college graduates in two decades. Alienation and mistrust divided the schools' staff from the communities they served. Superintendent Robert Crumley, a teacher at the time, recalls that staff talked about standing on a "burning platform" -- a foundation that could collapse at any moment.

Roger Sampson, a new arrival from Alaska's Kenai Peninsula, embarked on a complete overhaul by enlisting the support and input of both staff and the district's communities. Chugach serves 214 students. More than half are homeschooled, with district support; the others attend school in one of three communities carved out of the evergreens at the bases of mountains rising from Prince William Sound.

Boy and teacher looking at a crab trap
Jordan Geffe sets crab traps with teacher Jed Palmer for a science experiment.

In Whittier, a former U.S. Army port, most of the 182 residents live in a high-rise building across the street from the school. Residents typically work at the cannery, at the small boat harbor, or in industries such as railroad, shipping, and tourism.

The villages of Tatitlek and Chenega Bay, with populations of about 100 and 50 respectively, are accessible only by boat or charter plane. People here -- mostly members of the Native Alaskan Alutiiq tribe -- get by largely on government and tribal subsidies and their traditional practices of hunting, fishing, and berry picking. A handful of residents work on the trans-Alaska oil pipeline in nearby Valdez.

Native and mainstream American cultures collide in these two hamlets: A villager might go seal hunting during the day and then watch American Idol via satellite TV that night. Eagles glide over the houses while hip-hop music booms from open windows.

Comments (22) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Bob Crumley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Many thanks for your comments and enthusiasm.
I fully believe the future of education lies down this path.

Bob Crumley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Many thanks for your comments and insight. Understanding the nature of traditional college entrance requirements and scholarship competitions, we have a system to translate our student scores into traditional scores when necessary. It's nice to know it isn't always necessary as some organizations understand that our student records show a very accurate picture of what a student knows and can do. We've yet to experience a situation where one of our graduates wasn't allowed entrance to any type of post secondary education institution. This includes Dartmouth, Berkley, Humboldt, vocational schools, and Alaskan universities.
While many of our graduates are still in those institutions, some have graduated. We are pleased that they are showing the perseverance to stay ...even when it's beyond four years. This said, I'm simply explaining our experience so I'm unsure if this can be extrapolated to other situations. Thanks again for your comments.

Bob Crumley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for your insights and encouragement. It's not easy and it doesn't happen quickly and therefore encouragement is an important ingredient.

Bob Crumley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Many thanks for your comments and enthusiasm. I often say all of our students are special and we label them "At Promise". Which student wouldn't benefit from an accommodation or some individualized learning? I'm encouraged to hear that so many educators like you understand this.
All the best,

Bob Crumley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love your energy and enthusiasm. While you may not have control to change the "System", you can certainly apply some of the concepts to your classroom. In fact you probably already do so. Many thanks for taking the time to comment.

Jil Crochere's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a great idea! Putting the kids first and encouraging all staff and students to work together. It is no wonder that their test scores improved so much ... we all know small class sizes (they average 10 per teacher) enable students to get the individual attention that is so needed.

John A Davis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Yes, Chugach students go to college and at rates higher than many districts. The model is a marvelous idea but only if you believe you want to teach ALL children to high levels. Most schools are not ready to make that commitment because the belief is that only some students can (should) achieve at high levels. The Bell curve is alive and well. Chugach decided they would expect all students to achieve to high levels.

BTW, colleges are using more than grades to sort students because so many have perfect or near perfect GPA's.

Educating the best of our children is important. Educating all our children is essential and really is hard work.

Diana Mazzuchi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was thrilled to read about what they're doing. I'd love to know how they got started breaking down the many standards to small steps that everyone could understand. This would be so perfect for so many of our low-income kids who need more time and attention!

lucella moffatt whatley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Reality check: Grades still matter as do spelling, mechanics, writing skills, etc. Cream rises to the top with heavy doses of encouragement and feedback to students and parents. For over thirty-five years I found that most parents appreciated a kind, positive phone call--short, sweet, to-the-point, especially near the beginning of the term or grading period. With almost 180 students per semester, I was able to call and make contact or leave a message with a parent or sometimes with the student from one or two classes in a very short timeframe. Just a few well chosen words of praise returned huge dividends from most parents and students. I loved it when a student would come to class and say, "Wow, Ms. Whatley, thanks for calling1 My mom is taking me shopping this weekend!" Also, I saw students improve their writing skills when they would used computers in a lab or in the library; I would encourage them to "fill the screen" by going back into their drafts to add sensory details, to add anecdotes, etc. Male students, in particular, seemed to prefer revising multiple drafts of essays or other writing assignments at computers. I agree with the comment from Jorge in that about 75 percent of my students put a large amount of emphasis on their grades.

Sue Shoemaker's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This seems a great idea. However, what happens to the student who cannot or will not progress as fast as the majority of the other students? Does a teacher giving that child more individual time work? How do you help those students feel they have value when everyone else is passing them up? I realize that in the traditional classroom, most students realize where they stand academically very early. Does the same thing happen in your classes? How do you motivate all students?

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